The Kam River Fighting Walleye’s maiden voyage to the Centennial Cup did not result in any wins, but the team learned many lessons on what it takes to get back and — more importantly — make a bigger impact the next time around.
Dylan Hudon scored a goal and an assist and Noah Pak made 22 saves as the Collingwood Blues defeated the Superior International Junior Hockey League champions 4-1 on Tuesday afternoon in Portage la Prairie, Man.
The loss ends Kam River’s run at the Canadian junior A hockey national tournament with a 0-4-0 record, out of the playoff picture. Wednesday is the final day of preliminary games for other teams with two quarterfinal games feature the second- and third-seeds in each of the pools set for Friday.
The semifinals and final will be played this weekend at Stride Place.
Jeremy Dunmore tallied the lone goal for the Walleye on Tuesday. Eric Vanska made 35 stops in the final game of his junior hockey career.
“I was really proud of the guys,” Fighting Walleye head coach Geoff Walker said in a phone interview after the loss to the Blues, the champions of the Ontario league. “I think that was our best game of the tournament. We made it 2-1 there. In the third period, we had a ton more chances.”
Walker was happy with the players’ effort overall. He pointed to one bad period in the whole tournament — an eight-goal outburst in the second period by the host Portage Terriers in a 8-2 romp on Sunday. The Walleye’s other losses prior’s to Tuesday’s game was an opening-night 4-1 setback to the Battlefords North Stars on May 11 and a 5-2 decision to the Steinbach Pistons on Monday.
Lack of depth showed at times as deeper teams tired Kam River’s top lines out. The Walleye only mustered six goals in four games.
Dunmore was the top scorer with two goals and an assist at the event. Ryan Doucette dished out three assists and Max Leduc and Euan Morrison added two points each.
“We know what it looks like when you get onto the big stage and how good these players are and what we need to be doing recruiting wise to try and get that talent into Kam River so we can make another run,” Walker said. “We want to be right back here.”
In just their second full season in the SIJHL, the Fighting Walleye went 40-11-2 to earn the best record in the regular season for the second-straight year. They returned to the Bill Salonen Cup final where they defeated crosstown rival Thunder Bay North Stars in seven games.
Walker took over the reins of the team mid-season after the Walleye parted ways with former bench boss Matt Valley. Walker — who guided the Red Lake Miners to the SIJHL title last year — said his contract is two years so he’ll have a full off-season to tweak the rosters along with general manager Kevin McCallum and assistant general manager/director of scouting Bryan Smeltzer.
Eight players, including starter Vanska, Ethan Lang, Anthony Oviedo and Noah Kramps, are graduating from the junior ranks.
Leduc — the SIJHL’s rookie of the year — and top defenceman Jack Cook, who was named the league’s playoff MVP, are only aged 17 and 19, respectively, and eligible to return. However, Walker said the pair are garnering plenty of attention from scouts from other junior leagues and colleges. Leduc was selected by the OHL’s London Knights in the priority draft last month.
“We’ll see what we need to do moving forward to get to that level where we’re out here and have the depth to kind of put us over,” Walker said.
Players and staff will hop on the bus this morning and head home where should arrive back at Oliver Paipoonge in the afternoon.
Final exit interviews are set for Thursday. The Fighting Walleye will then host a Season to Remember event at Norwest Arena on Thursday night from 7-9 p.m. Fans will have a chance to meet and greet with the 2022-23 team one more time. Autographs and merchandise will be available.
HEAVY HEARTS: Before Sunday’s game against Steinbach, the Walleye learned that former player Dayton Clarke was killed in an apparent hit-and-run. Clarke, a Victoria, B.C., native, played 14 regular season games and 10 playoff games in Kam River last season. He had 14 goals and 11 assists. Clarke was a freshman at the University of Oregon. Walker said the news devastated the team, especially the eight or nine returnees from the 2021-22 season that played alongside Clark
“A really, really horrible thing that happened to that young man. It really kind of put things into perspective,” Walker said. “Hockey’s just a game right? . . . The sun came up that morning. We had our health you know we had each other and for that poor family on Mother’s Day they didn’t have that opportunity.”
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